Letter: Why Labour will always need the unions; why it must let them go

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Sir: John Torode shows a surprising lack of understanding of the way in which trade unions work when he calls them undemocratic ('Better off without a bankroll', 10 June).

Our trade unions are no more undemocratic than the British state. Unions, like most parliamentary democracies, are 'responsible democracies': we, the electors, do not take decisions, we elect people to take them and throw them out later if we are unhappy. Those we elect appoint professionals to advise, implement and in some instances to take decisons under delegated powers.

No government or parliament has ever asked me, or any other citizen, personally and directly, to decide about, for example, our membership of the exchange rate mechanism, or the way our representative should vote on the UN Security Council. The Government's 'block vote' is assumed, reasonably, to be an adequate representation of all our interests and views.

Trade union democracy is exactly similar. I agree that it could be improved, perhaps by special levy-payers' conferences to control political levy expenditure, by election of political committees, by properly audited Labour Party affiliation numbers and by improved consultation.

Mr Torode - and, more important, John Smith - ought to be aware that the Labour Party is not and never has been a political party in the normal sense of a group of like-minded folk with electoral ambitions. It is the political wing of a broad, democratic socialist movement, combining the interests of workers, co-operative members, intellectuals - including individuals who combine these roles.

Of course, it needs some modernisation and improvements in democracy and efficiency. It needs to expand the involvement of those outside its original constituencies - the burgeoning lower middle class who are not trade union members, the unemployed, consumers, environmentalists, should be encouraged to join the federal structure of the movement. But if that federal structure, and the key influence of the trade unions, is abandoned, the party will lose its raison d'etre.

If Mr Smith has his way and Mr Torode's 'unthinkable' occurs, it will not be many years before people in unions start to say they are under-represented in Parliament. They will suggest forming a new political party. I, after 30 years in the Labour Party, and many others like me, would be quick to join.

Yours faithfully,


London, W14

The writer was an official of the TUC organisation department from 1965-75.